The Right Kind of Animal
Dad makes you zip your jacket up before he takes you hunting. Where you were generally flat before, hips and breasts have blossomed in the last year, and growing into your body makes it difficult for him to see you as anything but a girl. Always, he’s treated you like your boy cousins; that’s not so easily done anymore. You’re wearing the new sports bra Mom bought beneath the camo, so tight it cinches your ribs. The pain’s good—better than having him comment on your weight. Mom says to shake it off. “He’s a man, baby. You know how they are.”
You do as Dad says and close the jacket, zipper resting over your heart, but shake your head when he passes you a cap.
“Your hair’ll get in the way,” he tells you.
“I can pull it back.” You won’t. You intend to leave it hanging over your shoulders where he can’t help but see.
Dad spits tobacco juice into the grass and barely looks at you. One more little wound. “Better not whine about it later.”
There are few colors this deep in winter except brown and blue. It rarely snows in Mississippi, but the cold sets into the land, the lakes, your bones. Inside the deer blind, you try to match your breathing to Dad’s. He’s so quiet. He’s done this all his life and, thus, you have too, even when you didn’t want to, even though you’ve never shot anything but targets. That remains a sore spot with him whenever your uncles and grandfather bring it up: “When’s your kid gonna kill a deer?”
Today, if Dad has his way. Not that you’ve made it easy for him. When he woke you at five o’clock, you lay in bed until he tired of checking to see whether you were up. He fixed a thermos of coffee you’ve refused to share with him. “Not hungry,” you said when he scooped scrambled eggs onto your plate. Small rebellions.
You sneak a thumb to your wrist and beg your pulse to stop being so loud, because Dad says animals can hear it just as well as they can smell the danger-scent of people.
The buck is big in a way you can’t describe, barely a hundred yards away and coming nearer. Antlers growing in, not yet like the chandelier-size racks Dad mounts. The deer weaves between bushes, easily lost amidst the brown-black trees, movements languid: he hasn’t scented you yet. Nose to earth, he roots for the pecans that litter the ground. Soon, he’s so close you can see the veins bulging beneath his pelt.
Your heartbeat throbs in your ears, your throat, inside your thigh.
Dad straightens. He can’t hear your heartbeat, he’s not the right kind of animal for it, and he eases the rifle toward your empty hands. When you don’t immediately take it, he waits. There are only so many times he’ll accept you saying no. You try to find comfort in the familiar press of wood and metal when you accept the gun, the scope digging into the socket of your eye, the stock cradled against your shoulder. Trail the buck, line up the shot. You’ve known where to aim, what kind of death is merciful, since you were seven.
In the moments between its life and death, you swear the buck sees you. Then its body jerks with the force of your bullet, and it crashes down.
Pain ratchets through your shoulder from the kickback. The hand Dad claps to your back only makes it worse. His fingers get caught in your hair, not quite enough to hurt. “Good shot,” he says.
You wish you weren’t hungry for his praise, but it fills some of the cracks in your heart he inadvertently made in the first place.
At home under the carport, Dad hangs the body to dress. He sighs long-sufferingly but complies when you refuse to pull the skin loose. “You’re still helping,” he says. “You can’t kill something without getting your hands dirty. Isn’t right.”
Offal slops into buckets; you toss the dogs small pieces and pack the meat to be processed. Blood turns your fingernails poppy-bright, your wrists wrapped in gore. Mom comes out long enough to bring you both drinks. She doesn’t complain about the blood you smear on the glass or that’s soaked into the cuff of your sleeves.
Dad says the antlers aren’t worth keeping. You don’t argue. You’ve never needed a trophy.
Once finished with the carcass, he wets his fingers in blood. You know what to expect from old photographs, from watching your boy cousins go through this ridiculous ritual, and you try not to flinch away as Dad brushes his thumbs under your eyes and across your forehead. The blood quickly goes tacky and smells like old keys. “Leave it,” he tells you.
A rite of passage, this sign that you’ve killed your first deer. You don’t tell him that at thirteen, you’re intimately familiar with blood.
While Dad finishes cleaning up, you hold the deer’s heart in your hands. It’s lighter than expected and cool to the touch. You dig your finger into the dark hole until you find the bullet lodged inside. Bits of muscle wedge beneath your fingernails as you pry the bullet loose—slimy and stained red, a reminder of what you did today and never want to do again. You set the bullet aside and cradle the heart, wonder what it would be like to bite into something so recently alive and feel the gush of blood on your tongue, clinging to your teeth. Maybe you’d be able to shake off your skin and grow antlers, take on an animal heart.